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Obama Year-End News Conference; Mother Teresa A Saint; Feds Join Hunt for "Affluenza" Teen; "Concussion" Controversy: New Film Takes on Issue of NFL Head Trauma. Aired 9:30-10a ET

Aired December 18, 2015 - 09:30   ET


[09:31:50] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow, in this Friday for my friend Carol Costello. Thank you so much for being with us.

President Obama is now just hours away from his final press conference of the year and his seventh year in office is coming an end as many Americans are increasingly fearful of potential terror attacks. Terror expected to be a focus this afternoon in his remarks before the president heads to San Bernardino tonight. He will meet privately with the families of those killed earlier this month in the terror attack. Joe Johns live for us at the White House this morning with more.

What else are we expecting from the president, Joe?

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think you hit the nail on the head there, Poppy, there's a lot of nervousness out there in the country and we've been seeing this again and again over the last week or so. The president getting one last chance to make his case to the public about why this administration is on the right track when it comes to international terrorism. Then he flies off to the west to go to San Bernardino and have private meetings with the families of the victims of the San Bernardino attacks.

The president, yesterday, of course, visiting the National Counterterrorism Center. Once again repeating that his experts have found no credible, no specific threat against the homeland. He also announced that he has instituted a review into the controversial now K-1 fiance visa program that allowed one of those perpetrators in the San Bernardino attacks to actually get into the country.

Now, after the president gets to San Bernardino, he flies on to Hawaii, and that is where he's going to have a vacation for the next couple of weeks or so. He won't be back here in the United States until after the New Year, Poppy.

HARLOW: Joe Johns live for us at the White House this morning. Joe, thank you very much.

I do want to point out, CNN has special coverage ahead this afternoon of the president's press conference. That will begins at 1:40 p.m. Eastern Time.

All right, checking top stories for you. Secretary of State John Kerry is heading up a U.N. Security Council

meeting in an effort to push members to help end the four year civil war that is still raging in Syria. Kerry is hoping his trip to Russia this week was enough to actually make some serious change. Yesterday during an address, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he did support the new constitution in Syria, pointing out it still, though, does need work.

The United States and Russia finding common ground, at least on one issue, fighting ISIS. The U.N. unanimously adopting a resolution proposed by the two countries aimed at stopping the terror group's money flow. The Treasury Department says the resolution would slap sanctions on ISIS, the same way it did on al Qaeda, but ISIS took in $2 billion last year alone. That makes it the richest terror organization in history.

And the Catholic Church will soon have another saint. Pope Francis now recognizing a second miracle attributed to Mother Teresa, paving her way to sainthood. CNN Vatican correspondent Delia Gallagher live for us today in Rome with more.

[09:35:03] I would say it's about time.

DELIA GALLAGHER, CNN VATICAN CORRESPONDENT: Well, yes, great celebrations in India happening today. The archbishop said they had been waiting a long time for this announcement, Poppy. The pope approving the second miracle required in order to make Mother Teresa a saint. The Vatican's not releasing the details of that miracle, but according to the Italian bishop's newspaper, it has to do with a Brazilian man who back in 2008 was apparently spontaneously cured of several brain tumors. This is in addition to an Indian woman in 2002 who was also apparently cured of tumors on the abdomen. That was the first miracle approved by John Paul II, who fast-tracked Mother Teresa.

You remember that the process for miracles at the Vatican takes some time because it has to be a spontaneous healing. It cannot be medically explainable. And it has to be long lasting. You also have to have prayed to the saint after their death. That's why sometimes these processes take a while.

Now, Pope Francis has said that he met Mother Teresa when he was a cardinal back in 1994. She was sitting behind him at a synod of bishops here at the Vatican. And he said he really admired the way that she wasn't intimidated by the bishops. She spoke her mind. And he said he was even a little bit afraid of her. So he has great personal admiration for her. But moreover, she represents the kind of church that he has been calling for. She's probably the most visible face of the Catholic Church's outreach towards the poor. So it makes sense that he would want to make her a saint.


HARLOW: Delia Gallagher live for us in Rome. Thank you very much.

Still to come, quote, "we are going to find you." That is a sheriff's message for a missing Texas teen who got only probation after he killed four people. Where did he go? The latest on the hunt, next.


[09:40:00] HARLOW: The FBI and U.S. Marshals right now joining in the search for a teen and his mother who have gone missing. This is the teen, Ethan Couch. He received probation two years ago following a drunk driving crash that killed four people. His attorney made headlines in the case after, well, they argued in defense that he suffered from "affluenza," meaning he was a rich killed who was less culpable because his parents didn't set limits for him. And it worked. All of this resulted in him just getting probation. This also comes as a Texas sheriff that is tracking him and his mother appeared on CNN last night with a very clear message.


SHERIFF DEE ANDERSON, TARRANT COUNTY, TEXAS: For Ethan and his mother, you can run, but you're always going to be looking over your shoulder. We're not going to give up. We're going to come after you. We're going to find you wherever you are. The FBI, the U.S. Marshals and us are all going to be looking until we find you. You won't rest easy a day. You'll always be running. And we're going to come get you. And we're going to do everything we can to hold Ethan finally accountable.


HARLOW: CNN's Randi Kaye has been tracking this story from the beginning. She has the latest for us this morning.


RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Look closely at this video. That young man with the blond hair may be Ethan Couch. And if it is, he could be in big trouble. That's because Couch is on probation and isn't supposed to be drinking alcohol. Two and a half years ago at sixteen, Couch drove in a drunken haze, crashed and killed four people.

CALLER: We need some ambulances, it's bad. We flipped and - oh, God.

KAYE: Someone posted the beer pong clip on Twitter earlier this month and the county D.A. got wind of it. They went to talk to Ethan Couch about it, but it seems his disappeared. His probation officer hasn't heard from him in days. No one knows where he is.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I hate to say I told you so, but I told you so.

KAYE: The county sheriff wanted Couch locked up back in 2013, but one defense witness changed that.

KAYE (on camera): In one of the most bazaar defense strategies we've ever heard of, attorneys for Couch blamed the boy's parents for his behavior that night, all because of how they raised him. A psychologists and defense witness testified that the boy suffered from something called "affluenza," a lifestyle where wealth brought privilege and there were no consequences for bad behavior. KAYE (voice-over): The so-called "affluenza" defense touched off

outrage around the country. After all, Couch's blood alcohol was three times the legal limit and four people were dead. But the court bought it. Couch pleaded guilty to intoxication manslaughter. But instead of going to jail, the judge sentenced him to alcohol rehabilitation and ten years' probation. His father agreed to pay $500,000 for his son's pricy rehab digs. Victims' families were horrified.

ERIC BOYLES, LOST WIFE AND DAUGHTER IN CRASH: We had over 180 years of life taken - future life. Not 180 years lived, but 180 years of future life taken, and two of those were my wife and daughter.

KAYE: ABC News obtained these deposition tapes from one of the victim's civil suits against Couch. Listen as Ethan Couch's mother admits letting her son drive illegally.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You understood if he was at any time he was under 16 he was never to be driving by himself.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Nevertheless, you allowed that behavior to happen, correct?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When's the last time you recall disciplining Ethan for anything?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't remember.

KAYE: And now the authorities think Couch might have fled the country with none other than his mother. The boy's attorney would not discuss the case.

If authorities do find Couch, a judge will decide if he violated his probation. A sheriff's spokesman says Couch is allowed due process, adding, cases are not prosecuted or revoked or modified based on hearsay or based on a grainy video that we can't identify someone in. This time, Ethan Couch could end up behind bars for a decade.

Randi Kaye, CNN, Miami.


HARLOW: Randi, thank you for that.

[09:44:24] Still to come in the NEWSROOM, the movie "Concussion," you have probably heard about it. It is yet to hit movie theaters. But the controversy already brewing. Our Rachel Nichols went one on one with the star, Will Smith. Hear what he said, next.


HARLOW: Controversy surrounding the new film "Concussion" that is just days away from opening. The movie stars Will Smith. He plays the doctor who discovered the link between head injures on the football field and brain damage later in life.


HARLOW: CNN's sports anchor Rachel Nichols interviewed Will Smith extensively about the film. She joins me now. When you hear them say in the film, you're going to war with --


HARLOW: Me, too. An institution that owns a day of the week. But it does speak to the power of the NFL. Here is Will Smith. Son plays high school football. Huge football fan. Was it hard for him to decide to make the film?

NICHOLS: Yes. And he's a great avatar for all of us, right, who love football. I've dedicated my life to being around football. But you look at the reality here and it is difficult. And it's difficult because it is about more than just a game. It is about fathers and sons and mothers and family traditions and what you guys do on Thanksgiving. And I know people the only way they can talk to their dad is about football. So you are taking that very precious thing and challenging that. And I asked Will Smith about that because it has a personal connection to him, too. Take a look.


[09:49:53] WILL SMITH, ACTOR, "CONCUSSION": I grew up in Philly and loved football. I did not want to be the guy who said to the world that oh, guys, there might be a hidden danger that we're not seeing. But after I met Dr. Omalu and he told me his story and I sort of understand the science of it, as a parent I started to feel impelled to tell the story. Because I didn't know. While my son was playing, I didn't know. And I knew that if I didn't know, other parents didn't know. So it became important for me to be a part of the delivery of the information.

NICHOLS: Now for the million dollar question is, now that you know what you know, you said educating parents, would you let Trey play football now? If he came to you now and said hey, dad, I want to play high school football. What would you say?

SMITH: I would say son, listen, I love you. And if were up to me you could play, but your mother said no.


NICHOLS: That is an excellent strategy. I love it. The NFL in this movie is not exactly looking good. They are portrayed as willfully obscuring the truth about something that is causing physical long-term harm to their players. Do you think that is an accurate portrayal?

SMITH: That is something that we debated very heavily during this film and I like to chock things up to a lack of knowledge and a lack of clarity about what is real and what's true.

NICHOLS: How do you think the people in the NFL office feel about you these days?

SMITH: You know, I -- I probably won't be getting my free Super Bowl ticket this year.

NICHOLS: Don't worry. I don't think Roger Goodell sent me a Christmas card this year either, so we're in good company.


HARLOW: Good point. Rachel Nichols covers the NFL extensively, poses the hardest questions to Commissioner Goodell. What did Will Smith say to you about how, in the aftermath of making the film, he might change what he does?

NICHOLS: You heard him talk about his own relationship with football and his son, but on a completely different note, the character he plays in this movie is a Nigerian immigrant. He said living in that skin for a year, and now listening to the political rhetoric he hears and so much of the anti-immigrant conversation going on right now, he said he really starts thinking about, do I want to get involved in politics? He said he has not ruled out running for a position himself. Maybe president. We've heard Kanye West talk about Kanye for 2020. Maybe we'll get Fresh Prince versus Kanye in 2020. Who knows.

HARLOW: It's really interesting. There's so much of a purpose behind him making this film, absolutely. So stay with me, Rachel. I want to get some more perspective on this with former NFL punter Chris Kluwe. Chris, thank you for being with us.

CHRIS KLUWE, FORMER NFL PLAYER: Yeah. Thanks for having me.

HARLOW: Appreciate it. Chris played for my team, the Minnesota Vikings, for a long time and sitting back after your time in the league, I want your sense of all this. Because the NFL did put a statement out but they didn't address the film specifically. Here is what they wrote. "The NFL has made numerous changes to the game to enhance the health and safety of players at all levels of football. These include nearly 40 rule changes in the last decade, strict concussion protocols, and better training and sideline medical care." Chris, are things better?

KLUWE: No, not really because the problem with football is that you can't pad the inside of someone's skull. You're never going to be able to stop concussions from happening in a head-to-head violent collision. What the NFL needs to be doing is performing a longitudinal study on players by taking either MRIs or CAT scans over the course of entire players' careers. We're talking about like 10, 15-year long study so that way we can see if there actually is physical changes in the brain. That way we can see our players changing as they go through their career.

We should also be doing it in college and high school because the main thing is we're only finding out now what it is that we don't know. This movie is just the first of what we don't know. It's like CTE, now we know that's a thing. We need to know more because parents of young kids and the players themselves, they need to be able to make an informed decision. And if the NFL hides data or doesn't make available the opportunity to study stuff like CTE, then how can you possibly make an informed decision?

HARLOW: Right.

NICHOLS: It's so interesting, too, because we've been talking about concussions, Chris, right, if you're in this business, for years, but it's very dry, right? It's a bunch of numbers, medical terms. When you see a movie like this, a narrative handled so well, it dramatizes it for people. It gets them emotionally involved in just how serious this issue is. You talk about the brain not being padded. There's a great scene in the movie where Will Smith has a human brain in a jar of liquid and he starts shaking it back and forth. That's very arresting when you see it.

[09:55:01] KLUWE: Right. And it really brings the human element, I think, into the story because for a lot of people it's easy to brush off concussions as like, oh, you got your bell rung, you'll be fine. Things will be okay. But once you start seeing the long-term effects of CTE, of what it actually does to people, then you get that visual element of, this is how it changes a person. And it's a permanent change.

HARLOW: And Chris, look, when you joined the league, and granted, you were a punter, but every position is at risk, you didn't know what we know today about CTE. I know you're a proud father, you're a stay-at- home dad with your kids right now, doing the most important job. Are you letting them play the game?

KLUWE: Unfortunately, I have two daughters, so I don't think the league would let them in anyways. Maybe as kickers.

NICHOLS: Which is another segment. That's a different discussion.

HARLOW: Would you, Chris, if you had little boys?

KLUWE: That's the thing. I wouldn't let them play until high school. I think Dr. Omalu actually just wrote an op-ed on, you know, kids shouldn't be playing contact football until they're at least 18 years old, which to me makes a lot of sense because you can play flag football, you can develop your athletic skills. Once your body has stopped developing, then you can start practicing tackling. Yeah for the NFL, you're going to lose a couple years of guys in their prime. That 20, 21-year-old age range where they're still learning how to tackle, but at the end of the day, if it makes the sport safer, then that might be the only thing that actually saves the game of football from descending into kind of like horse racing and boxing levels of popularity.

HARLOW: That's fascinating thinking that it is the most popular sport in America right now. Chris Kluwe, thank you very much. Have a great weekend, a great holiday. Appreciate it, Rachel Nichols, to you. You can see a lot more of Rachel's interview with Will Smith at

The next hour of NEWSROOM begins after a quick break. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)